Elke Weber: ‘Losing something hurts twice as much as getting something makes you feel good’

The Princeton professor and first psychologist to join the IPCC discusses how positive emotions can work towards the fight against climate change by making people proud of being part of the solution

Elke Weber
Elke Weber at Princeton University, New Jersey, on May 30.Pascal Perich
Macarena Vidal Liy

If we were absolutely rational beings and made decisions by calculating benefits, the fight against climate change would be easier. Maybe we would have even solved it already: there is no doubt that fighting it is good for us. Elke Weber (Gelsenkirchen, Germany, 1957), then, would be investigating something else. However, we are not Homo economicus but Homo sapiens; our decisions are also guided by emotions.

For four decades, this cognitive psychologist has been studying how we react to this global problem and how to apply what happens in our minds to the fight against what she describes as “a perfect storm.” Weber, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, has won a Frontiers of Knowledge Award in humanities and social sciences from the BBVA Foundation. Through her research she has found, among other things, that climate change is perceived as more distant and causes less alarm than other extreme weather events with a more immediate effect, such as hurricanes, and that action is unlikely to be taken in the absence of pressure. She is the first psychologist to join the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Now that the academic year is over, Weber receives EL PAÍS in her office full of books inside the Andlinger Center at Princeton. It’s a bright, cool day, and climate change almost seems distant. But the building itself, with a native garden on the roof, leads one to think about the issue. Weber, petite and with a permanent smile, begins to speak passionately.

Question. You began studying long-term economic decision mechanisms and continued studying those related to global warming. How do human beings make decisions?

Answer. Economists used to say that we should make decisions rationally, taking into account all the information and projecting future consequences. But we don’t always make rational decisions. Sometimes we do, and it is a great achievement in evolutionary terms. We have developed the prefrontal cortex for this. But we make decisions from personal experience, through trial and error. If we make a mistake, we generate a negative emotion. If we get it right, a positive one. And there is a third way of deciding: according to moral, cultural, operational rules of conduct... They incorporate collective experience and avoid selfish utilitarian maximization.

Q. Can psychology help people act against climate change?

A. Psychology examines which emotions are best at catalyzing behavioral change. We know that losing something hurts just about twice as much as getting something makes you feel good. Negative emotions — fear, guilt — are a powerful motivator. They work when doing something simple is enough to solve a problem. We want to get out of that negative state of mind, so we do something to solve it. This is the case with cancer: it makes you go to the doctor, take a test and that way you know if you are sick or not. But then the flag goes down and you stop worrying about it. This is what we call the “single action bias.”

With climate change it is not a question of one thing: you buy an electric vehicle, great; but you also have to vote for the right candidate and do so much more. Negative emotions are not going to be effective in this case; we tend to do something, feel that we have contributed our grain of sand, and forget about what remains to be done. In these types of cases, positive emotions are more effective: instead of instilling blame, make people feel proud of being part of the solution. Help them build a personal identity as someone who cares about the environment. You start small, but a year later you look back and say: it looks like I’m an environmentalist! That motivates and empowers. But often what we communicate is that we should have done something last year and we didn’t, and now things are worse. The idea spreads that we have lost the opportunity. It is not well communicated.

Q. What can the media, or the scientific community, do to provide better information?

A. There is an information deficit about what can be done about climate action. Some believe it is just about political action, international treaties, carbon subsidies, industrial policy. We need all of that, in addition to corporate and individual action. We need to communicate that we all have an important role to play, holding people responsible, and especially people in government and people in companies. And insisting that fighting climate change is technologically as well as financially possible and is not going to bankrupt the country. It will develop new industries, which will cost us, but doing nothing will cost us much more. We just need the political will.

Q. Isn’t the psychology of governments like that of people, short-term? A government can decide that this fight is not profitable at the polls.

A. Here we encounter another bias, the status quo bias. If we decided rationally, as the cost of electric vehicles became cheaper, we would opt for them. But sometimes we cling to old technology for infrastructure reasons. Where do I charge the electric car? The new can also represent a risk. But once we see that it is good, we get used to it: it happened with the ban on smoking in public, so criticized in the beginning. And that is an important message for politicians: don’t fear change. If your analysis says it improves public well-being, and people will see the benefits once the measure is in place, introduce it. Public sentiment is malleable, and it evolves.

Q. Now that artificial intelligence is a reality, with so much false or questionable content circulating, are we at greater risk of psychological manipulation?

A. There is a whole area of psychology called “choice architecture” that gets into the way in which you can shape behavior or manipulate decisions by how you present them. All other things being equal, whatever option you look at first has a very sizable advantage.

Q. We seem really vulnerable.

A. Yes, but we are flexible. And resilient.

Q. Covid is still here, we are experiencing two wars, a battle for democracy... are we at risk of action against climate warming losing steam in the face of other issues?

A. The “single action bias.” Yes, definitely. There is a natural tendency to divert attention from climate issues when other problems arise, but there are also very measured campaigns, coming from the oil sector, that try to make us forget. All so that some can get even richer before everything else goes down the drain.

Q. We have seen pro-Gaza protests in universities. Young people are a segment concerned about the climate. Have you detected a change in priorities?

A. To some extent, yes. But just because an issue is more verbalized does not mean that concern about climate change has disappeared. If anything, it may be more hidden and causing more damage to mental health, as it is not being articulated.

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